What Is Food Addiction?
Food addiction is a real addiction, just like those
related to drugs and alcohol. It most often shows up as a compulsive need to
eat. This can occur even when you are not physically hungry.
Food addiction may be present in people who also
struggle with other eating disorders such an anorexia or bulimia. While many
people overindulge from time to time, a food addict typically struggles with
binge eating on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t the same as eating too much at a
holiday meal or having too many cookies. Food addicts may have a hard time
controlling their eating, despite the desire to stop.
What Are the Causes of Food Addiction?
This addiction is complex. Food, like drugs or alcohol,
can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. This chemical is related to
pleasure. It creates a positive link between food and emotional wellbeing. In
the addicted brain, food is seen as a drug. It is used to re-create feelings of
pleasure, even when the body does not need the calories. Research, such as a
2010 study published in Current
Opinion in Gastroenterology, show increasing evidence that food
addiction is a result of changes in person’s neurochemistry and neuroanatomy.
A 2010 study showed
that when lab rats were given free access to high-fat, high-sugar foods, their
brains changed. The changes in their behavior and physiology were similar to
the changes caused by drug abuse. The study authors cautioned against drawing a
parallel between drug and food addictions, but their work does point to the
fact that there are definitely similarities. It also highlights the possibility
that eating lots of bad-for-you foods could heighten your chances of becoming
addicted to eating.
What Are the Symptoms of Food Addiction?
Addiction is not always easy to identify. This is
especially true for food addiction because we all need to eat.
But, food addicts can have symptoms of other conditions
like depression, binge eating, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Like other
addicts, they will hide their problem, eating in private and even hiding food.
Common signs of food addiction include:
- constant obsession with what to eat, when to
eat, how much to eat, and how to get more food
- overeating at mealtimes
- constant snacking
- eating at strange times like the middle of
- hiding eating habits from friends and family
or eating in secret
- bingeing and then purging, exercising, or
taking laxative pills to “reverse” the binge
- eating even when full
- eating to accompany pleasurable activities
like watching TV or talking on the phone
- associating food with punishments or rewards
- feeling shame and guilt after a binge or
after consuming particular foods
- consistent failed attempts to control eating
or eliminate bingeing episodes
While food addiction can often appear harmless or less
serious than other addictions, it is not. It is a condition that tends to
progress gradually. It can eventually result in lifelong obesity or health
problems while also making mental health issues worse.
What Are Potential Complications of Food Addiction?
Food addiction can have many
negative consequences. Without treatment, someone addicted to food can struggle
with obesity. This and poor nutrition can lead to increased risks of heart
disease, type 2 diabetes, and more. Digestive problems, like severe
constipation, are very common in food addicts.
If the addict is bulimic or
vomits food after binging, it can damage the esophagus and cause dehydration,
tooth decay, and heart failure.
People with a food addiction
may push their loved ones away in order to coddle their addiction. This means
that the complications can be far more than physical. Untreated, this problem
can damage relationships and worsen mental health disorders. Depending on the
severity of the addiction, it can also have financial effects as the addict
would rather spend money on food than other necessities.
What Are Treatments for Food Addiction?
Food addiction is typically treated in the same ways as
other addictions. It is a common belief in the medical community that an
addicted brain works in the exact same way, regardless of what the person is
Changing behaviors while also managing the physical
cravings are key elements in treating food addiction. The following treatment
options may be helpful:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Food addicts must learn to manage their triggers for
eating. CBT focuses on helping them identify appropriate behavioral responses
for day-to-day challenges. It teaches the food addict how to handle negative
thought patterns that can lead to bingeing.
Oftentimes, a food addict is using food to numb painful
feelings or avoid dealing with other complex emotional issues. Therapy may help
get to the root cause of overeating and help deal with emotions in a positive
way, rather than by eating.
Food addicts also often suffer from shame, guilt and,
poor body image. Talk therapy can help a food addict work through these, and
other, emotional issues.
In many cases, food addiction is present in people with
severe nutritional deficiencies or chemical imbalances in the body. Cravings
can often be managed or even eliminated with a personalized nutrition plan. By
addressing the areas of nutritional need with the help of a medical doctor or
nutritionist, an addict can pinpoint the foods that will quell his or her insatiable
need for food.
Anonymous (FAA) and Overeaters
Anonymous (OA) are 12-step programs that are
based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model of recovery. These groups can often
help food addicts manage their addictions in a supportive and encouraging
environment. By being part of a group of people with a similar problem, a food
addict can develop positive friendships where his or her problem is not seen as
For some, a food addiction can result from, or develop in
conjunction with, another mental health disorder. In these cases, it may be
necessary to treat the individual with medication in order to promote overall
stability. Drugs like antidepressants may help address the root cause of
What Is the Outlook for Food Addiction?
A food addict must learn to develop eating habits that
are in tune with the body’s natural cravings. They must also learn to eat
according to hunger and not in response to emotional needs or stress. Unlike an
alcoholic, a food addict cannot simply eliminate his or her “drug” of choice;
food is a basic need. Instead, food addicts must develop a healthy relationship
with food over time.
It’s often helpful for a food addict to have access to a
variety of activities and resources that promote healthy living, such as a
fitness center, nutrition classes, or stress-reduction techniques.
What Are Resources for Food Addiction?
If you or someone you know is struggling with a food
addiction, your doctor can help. Also, the following resources may be helpful
for finding more information and learning about treatment options. Many of
these resources are free: